Karina Canellakis in conversation ahead of her London debut with The Purcell School Symphony Orchestra

Interview care of The Purcell School ahead of their Southbank Centre concert on 29 February 2016. A version also appears on the Southbank Centre blog

This concert marks your London debut! How do you feel about working in London for the first time?
I am so excited to work in London as a conductor. I have heard many of the London orchestras live including LPO, Covent Garden, ENO, and enjoyed it immensely. There is a great tradition of music making in this city and I’m honoured to now be a part of it by performing with the wonderful young musicians of The Purcell School.

You began your musical career as a violinist – what triggered your desire to conduct and what advice would you give a young musician who aspires to be a conductor?
Keep playing your instrument! That would be my advice. It has been crucial for me to still be able to go to my violin as a comfort, meditation; a way of getting in back in touch with producing sound…so many reasons. It keeps it real for a conductor. I dreamt of conducting because I was inspired by great conductors I played under, but I never really thought it would happen. My desire came out of being inspired to know more about the score, the details of the piece, and to know what everyone else was doing, not just the violin part. I could never have anticipated that I would love conducting so much…initially the idea of being without the violin seemed quite strange, actually. Now of course it feels like it is in some ways more the “real me” than playing. That took some time, but it was worth the effort. 

You hold a Bachelor’s degree in violin from the Curtis Institute of Music and a Master’s degree in orchestral conducting from The Juilliard School – what musical training did you receive prior to your studies at the Curtis Institute?
Before Curtis I attended a public math and science high school in New York City and went to music school on Saturdays. I had very intensive violin lessons every week, practiced a lot and gave public performances at music school almost every week. My mom was my accompanist; it was a luxury although I didn’t realize at the time that not everyone has a pianist mother at their beck and call to run through concertos and sonatas! I also took conducting classes and score reading from about the age of 12 because my Dad is a conductor and he thought all musicians should learn a little conducting. So I was already experimenting with it in high school. 

Do you approach a concert any differently knowing that the orchestral performers are teenagers?
No. I think teenagers are extremely sophisticated, the only thing they lack is experience. So it will be a matter of playing a lot, guiding them about phrasing, breathing, how to think of the music and how to listen to each other. It’s so gratifying to work with young people, I love it. 

Conducting is physically demanding – how do you prepare for the physical demands of your profession?
I have definitely been more careful about staying in shape and eating better since I started doing a lot of conducting and traveling. The travelling is brutal for a conductor…lots of flights and jet lag. It’s important to do warm ups and back exercises. I like yoga – I do a little at-home yoga every morning before I start my day, and stretch a lot. It forces you to do deep breathing as well. I like to pretend I’m like Baryshnikov warming up.

Having been mentored by some amazing people – Rattle, Zweden, Alan Gilbert, Fabio Luisi – how have these people shaped you as a musician?
Each of my mentors is very different from the others, and each of them has given me different inspiration and guidance. I could write a book about each one of them. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have such unbelievably brilliant musicians as my teachers and moral supporters. If it weren’t for those four, I would not be doing what I am doing, that’s for sure. They gave me and continue to give me so much confidence and encouragement. I personally need that, because I’m not someone who thinks so highly of myself, and it’s a tough profession. You have to love music more than life itself, I think, in order to be able to work that hard.

You recently received great acclaim for filling in for Jaap Van Zweden with the Dallas Symphony at short notice – how do you feel when you are notified that you’ll be conducting at short notice, and as Assistant Conductor how much time do you typically have with the orchestra?
Filling in at the last minute has become something I’ve done many times now! The latest was Shostakovich 7, and that was really really at the last second. It’s exhilarating. I mean, it was exciting because I was prepared, so I did not even have time to feel nerves or doubt. You just have to get up there and make 110 people play their hearts out, together, and with a coherent flow and atmosphere. It’s the ultimate being-in-the-moment experience.

As an assistant conductor in Dallas, I have done about 30 concerts of my own per season. It’s a very good position in Dallas because you are given a lot of time with the orchestra. It’s also a tremendous responsibility and workload, but you learn so much repertoire that way. 

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Kind, sensitive, intense…? Maybe you should ask my friends!

What are your six Desert Island Discs?
I could not make it 6. Here are 7!

  • Mahler ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ with Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier
  • Bruckner 4 with Celibidache and Münchner Phil
  • Joseph Szigeti’s recording of Prokofiev violin concerto no.1
  • John Eliot Gardiner’s Mozart ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ with English Baroque Soloists, Bryn Terfel, Alison Hagley, Rod Gilfry
  • Sawallisch recording of Strauss ‘Die Frau Ohne Schatten’ with Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
  • The Guarneri String Quartet’s recording of Beethoven string quartet op.130 (the Cavatina in particular)
  • Takacs Quartet’s recording of Bartok string quartet no.4

Who were your (musical) idols growing up?
When I was a teenager: Heifetz, Oistrakh, Szigeti (they were the three gods), Bernstein, Rostropovich, the Guarneri String Quartet, Isaac Stern, Pavarotti, Domingo, James Levine, Simon Rattle, Karajan, Rachmaninoff, Billie Holiday, Lauren Hill, Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, Art Tatum, The Beatles.

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